Groningen: what’s old is new again
Founded in 950, the compact Dutch city has lots to teach the 21st century
It’s true I could have been more cautious. I didn’t have to gawk over my shoulder at the photogenic market square behind me or look up past a horizon of steeples to find the landmark bell tower. Still, the real problem, as everyone explained later, was that I had unwittingly crossed the line.
The line in question was painted in white across the cobblestones. One side was sidewalk; the other was dedicated to traffic, which, in this car-free city centre, consisted of crowds of cyclists speeding along in rush-hour throngs. It took one oblivious step into the surging herd of pedals to confirm I was as bad a jaywalker as I would be a rodeo clown.
Once the bikes were untangled, and apologies and handshakes exchanged, I took great care not to cross the line again.
Charming, vibrant and full of interest, the city of Groningen isn’t just Holland’s cycling headquarters. Located 180 kilometres north of Amsterdam in the province of the same name, this lively centre of 200,000 people is both rich with history and a youthful university town buzzing with contemporary culture. Founded in the year 950, Groningen is compact and easily walkable — if you watch where you’re going, that is — and exudes the sense of urbane wellbeing the Dutch have specialized in since the country essentially invented the bourgeoisie during the Golden Age of the 17th century.
Filled with outdoor cafés, venerable churches, funky galleries, shops, clubs and whole epochs of architecture, the picturesque city also has a reputation for intriguingly juxtaposing the old and the new. Its main art museum, for instance, looks like a luridly painted flotilla of avant-garde shipwrecks and sits partially immersed in a historic canal. And while Groningen obviously enjoys its student ambience — 55,000 young people go to colleges here and local bars literally never close — it also easily retains the elegance and airs of the wealthy independent city-state it once was. For that, you only have to look to the heritage that’s perennially on view in the stately centre ringed by waterways and chock-a-block with impressive buildings dating back to the medieval era.
This was where I began a morning jaunt with a steaming cup of Dutch cocoa. Any point in central Groningen is minutes from the Diepenring canal system that surrounds the city like a spider web glistening with houseboats and intersected by bridges, many of which split open to accommodate water traffic larger than paddle boards, kayaks and ducks that regularly ply the placid channels. It’s possible to take a three-kilometre canal cruise around the city centre (you can rent canoes too), but I decided to wander in the vicinity of the Grote Markt, one of two large downtown squares — the other is Vismarkt, the fish market — that at weekends transform from empty expanses of cobblestone into a caravanserai of food trucks and produce stalls.
Looming over the Grote Markt is Groningen’s most enduring symbol, the 500-year-old, 97-metre-tall church spire known as the Martini Tower. Named after St. Martinus, a Roman who converted at the Crucifixion, the church is said to house John the Baptist’s arm and offers public access (€3) up the 250 steps to the bells on top. Instead of viewing the relics, I headed into the constellation of shopping streets and merchant alleys that radiate off the square. Herestraat is the main pedestrian commercial boulevard and I eventually found my way to Folkingestraat near Vismarkt, which I’d heard was the best place to buy anything to eat, wear or show off in the Netherlands. I explored its treasure trove of gourmand delicacies and sophisticated design stores before ending up in OudeKijk in’t Jatstraat, an area of trendy boutiques and friendly, stylish cafés and brasseries.
Parks and Po-Mo
Groningen also boasts many leisurely parks and fine public gardens, some established centuries ago. Just north of the centre is the majestic Noorderplantsoen, a serene oasis of paths and serpentine ponds with a name that must mean “Northern plant zone” if there’s any merit to my highly questionable theory that Dutch is basically English misheard underwater. Equally bucolic are the city’s Gasthuizen (guest houses), walled compounds of homes built around courtyards that were the gated communities of the Middle Ages. Still privately occupied, the verdant interior courtyards are open for polite public viewing; the largest one is in the Pelsterstraat between the markets. After a lunchtime snack of regional favourites — the eierbal, a meatball containing a boiled egg, washed down with Bax, one of the foamy local suds — I set off to what is undoubtedly the city’s most flamboyant attraction. The screamingly post-modern Groninger Museum (groningermuseum.nl; adults €18) is housed in three zanily hued pavilions that seem to float in the canal opposite the main railway station. Designed by a trio of famous “po-mo” starchitects, its canary yellow tower, silver cylinder and deconstructivist blue box are a perfect prequel to the bizarre, ornate galleries and cutting-edge art inside.
I was lucky enough to arrange a chat with the museum’s affable director, Andreas Blühm, in a “job lounge” lit by pendulous sconces that looked either like breasts or prophylactics; as Andreas slyly pointed out, it was presumably “the designer’s method of gauging sexual orientation.” The Groninger Museum is currently featuring a massive retrospective of the sculptor Auguste Rodin. His masterpiece, The Thinker, is in the show, which runs until the end of April.
Tired out by the day’s wandering, I was revived by dinner, a superbly presented six-course meal, complete with paired wines, at Eetcafé Schuitendiep (eetcafeschuitendiep.nl), a restaurant dedicated to affordable gastronomy. By the last truffle, there was no chance I was going pub-crawling down Poelestraat off the Grote Markt, by all accounts a lubricious tribute to the Netherland’s celebrated liberalism.
I needed a good night’s sleep to prepare myself for the coming morning’s trip to rural Groningen landscapes of peat bogs, flower meadows and terps, artificial hills long ago raised above sea level. Not to mention Groningen’s Wadden Sea coast. After the Alps, it’s the biggest untouched wilderness in Western Europe, with millions of breeding seabirds. If you’re so inclined at low tide you can walk for hours over the sand bars and mud flats. And also visit the baby seal rescue and rehabilitation centre at Pieterburen.
I carefully followed the white median line over pavements and cobblestones back to my hotel and to bed lulled by a silence scarcely broken by the distant sounds of a squeaky bike or two.
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